Staunton, Nov. 27 – Vladimir Putin, who came to power without an ideology, has found in medieval models like Ivan the Terrible imagery that justifies the terror and inequality that is not only the basis of his own current rule but also provides a powerful justification among Russians for the restoration of Stalinism, Dina Khapaeva says.
In a newly released book, Putin’s Dark Ages: Political Neomedievalism and Re-Stalinization in Russia, the US-based Russian scholar says Russia is “slipping into the middle ages” not only because of Putin’s interest in promoting a selection of ideas from it but also because these are echoed among Russians (holod.media/2023/11/27/neomedievalism/).
By suggesting that Grozny’s terror is an integral part of Russian statehood and that inequality as in the middle ages is natural, Putin has found a way to convince people that his regime is both natural and legitimate within the Russian tradition, the intellectual historian continues.
This is a double abuse of the middle ages, Khapaeva says. On the one hand, it suggests that what was typical then necessarily must be accepted now; and on the other, it ignores the fact that Russia never went through the middle ages in the way that the countries of Western Europe did.
But medievalism has sources both in Putin’s own ideological quest and in the habits of mind of the Russian people. “When Putin came to power, he did not have any ideology at all. Instead, he counted on the Russian Orthodox Church to help with this.” But that hope proved in vain.
As a result, the Kremlin leader began casting about for other sources to justify what he was doing. And a variety of writers and filmmakers offered imagery about Ivan the Terrible, Alexander Nevsky and other figures from more than half a millenium ago to serve that purpose. And Putin accepted these proposals enthusiastically.
“Putin’s Russia is now run by terror,” and the country is far more totalitarian than it was under Brezhnev,” Khapaeva says. And now there is a very real possibility that Moscow will take the next step toward a world defined by its imagery of the middle ages and introduce not targeted but mass terror.
The historian says that she hopes that this will be prevented by Russia’s defeat by Ukraine and the disintegration of Russia itself. And if that happens, the countries that will take shape will not be “feudal principalities” as some analysts are now suggesting, but entirely “new formations.” Using concepts from the middle ages to explain them is entirely inappropriate.